I could go on all day.
Sound like a strange grouping? Maybe at first blush. But these folks actually have a lot in common. They’re all world changers. All successful, talented, smart, and determined. Their stories are nothing short of wildly inspirational.
And not one of them finished college. In fact, many of them didn’t even complete high school.
Let’s look at some of their counterparts in a bit more detail:
Ray Bradbury, award-winning science fiction author, never went to college because his parents couldn’t afford it. Instead, he sold newspapers on Los Angeles street corners by day and educated himself at libraries by night. “I couldn’t go to college,” Bradbury said, “so I went to the library.”
Paul Allen—billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, founder of Xiant software, and owner of the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers—dropped out of college to start working. A year later, he convinced Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard to start the venture that would become Microsoft. Gates explained the decision later on: “I realized the error of my ways and decided I could make do with a high school diploma.”
Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist, was an elementary school dropout. He began working as a bobbin boy in a textile mill at the age of 13, and he later became one of the first mega-billionaires in the United States. *
Now, I’m not against education. If you know me, you know that I’m a lifelong learner. I myself have a couple degrees, and I’ve invested in 4 more between my 3 daughters. I’ve even worked as a college professor.
I believe in investing in education, and I always will. But I also believe that a college degree is not a ticket to success, and certainly not the only path to achieving it.
The fact is, I’m against any paradigm that places all people into the same box. And the go-to-college-or-else paradigm has become one such box.
College Bound & in a Bind
Since we’re in a learning mood, let’s look at a story:
Like most children, Lexi started showing her natural gifts at a young age. As early as preschool, she began exhibiting high mechanical dexterity and spatial perception. She loved constructing and shaping things. She built Lego structures that were far more complex than those of her friends.
But no one noticed much.
In high school, she enrolled in the one shop class that was offered and wanted to spend all day there. But she wasn’t excelling in her “college prep” courses, so her parents and teachers constantly discussed those struggles with her rather than focusing on the incredible structures that she could create.
By junior year, her parents had hired tutors, cancelled her “fun” time in shop class, and pushed her to focus on college “so she could get a good job.”
Now, Lexi is graduating from a 4-year university with a major in philosophy and a minor in ecological imperialism. She hopes to land a babysitting job, but she’ll settle for just about anything.
Meanwhile, 600,000 vacancies exist in skilled trades: carpentry, plumbing, welding, etc. And the average age of folks in these occupations is 58. As they retire, the vacancy rate continues to soar, and demand for their skilled labor grows steadily. But supply is limited because Lexi and others like her ignored (or were encouraged to ignore) their strongest attributes.
Today, a skilled toolmaker can easily make $125,000 per year. And that number will increase. When you call your plumber or electrician, his whole staff is comfortably booked. The owner is trying to fill 3 open positions, is adding 2 trucks to his fleet, and has a much higher net worth than he did when he was an attorney.
It’s simple supply and demand.
Attitude vs. Attributes
Of course, I’m not encouraging all parents to direct their children toward skilled trades. That would simply repeat our mistake in a different direction.
But today, there’s a sad phenomenon playing itself out in our economy: parents are spending untold billions of dollars on college tuition without considering whether their children will gain a dime from that degree. Then, on graduation day, these same parents seem offended that their graduates can’t find employment “fitting” their education. As if there’s some inherent right that college graduates have to a certain type of job.
What happened here? We got stuck in a rut. We developed an attitude about college—a general belief that there’s a right and wrong approach to education, and that those who deviate from the prescribed path won’t succeed.
I don’t buy it.
So let’s change the attitude. Let’s stop pushing people (especially our children) toward our own perception of “best jobs” or “best schools” or “most lucrative careers.” Let’s stop assuming that there’s a universal human formula for success.
The fact is, any perceived formula isn’t based on current reality or on the future reality that today’s youth are stepping into. It’s inherently based on the past—usually on our perception of how we ourselves could have been better off.
Take a step back. Rethink this approach. And look at the natural giftedness that exists in your children, your protégés, yourselves.
Now drop the word should for a minute and focus on what these people are inherently great at.
Then think about how to encourage growth in those power-alley attributes.
Maybe college is part of the equation. Maybe it’s not. Every person’s path is different.
But the way we pursue greatness is always the same: grow our gifts, live out our inherent attributes, excel in the ways we’re uniquely built for excellence.
That’s where success lies.
* Thanks to John Kremer for compiling the College Dropouts Hall of Fame, an online resource that helped greatly in compiling the list at the start of this post.